How to Perform the Push-Up — Tips, Tricks, & Variations

This classic bodyweight exercise is useful in more ways than you might think.

The push-up is one of the first exercises most people ever perform. While commonly (and rightfully) considered a beginner’s exercise, there’s more to it than meets the eye. If you’ve been trying to pack muscle onto your chest, shoulders, and arms, or want to be a little more explosive, revisiting this calisthenics classic might be the right move.

Below is everything you’d want to know about the push-up — how to do it, variations, alternatives, programming recommendations, and answer common questions you may have. 

How to Perform the Push-Up Step by Step

Even though most people have done push-ups at some point in their lives, it is still worth breaking down the exercise into its fundamental steps to ensure that it is being performed safely and effectively. After all, technique is critical when it comes to reaping the benefits of any exercise.

Step 1 — Brace & Set 

Push-Up Step 1

Clear any stray objects or clutter from the exercise area before beginning, and ensure that the surface you’re using isn’t slippery or unstable. Contrary to popular belief, training on a wobbly or uneven surface may not benefit joint stability. (1)

Assume a rigid plank position with hands pressed flat against the floor. Double-check your posture to ensure that your joints are aligned, all the way from the neck to the ankles. The head should be neutral, looking towards the floor slightly ahead of the hands. Brace the core tightly and try to “squeeze” the floor with your hands.

Coach’s Tip: Set your shoulders directly over your wrists to increase force output and reduce the risk of injury. 

Step 2 — Descend

Push-Up Step 2

Take a deep breath in and slowly lower your torso by bending at the elbows. The torso and legs should descend together without breaking rigidity through the midline. The scapula should retract slightly while remaining in a depressed position.

Coach’s Tip: Maintain strict control of your tempo all the way down, particularly as you get closer to the floor, and touch it lightly with your chest.

Step 3 — Explode

Push-Up Step 3

Once the torso gently touches the floor, forcefully “press the ground away” by reversing the initial movement. Keep the torso and legs rigid as they were during the setup, elbows directly over the wrists, and return to the starting position.

Coach’s Tip: Pay extra attention to trunk posture. Do not compromise a rigid, braced spine while trying to be explosive off the ground.

Benefits of the Push-Up 

Like any other exercise, the benefits of the push-up are contingent on good technique and strong focus. When performed properly, the push-up can be a tool with multiple applications both in and out of the gym. 

[Related: How to Burn Fat for Weight Loss and More Definition]

Upper Body Hypertrophy 

When it comes to hypertrophy, the push-up can hang in the ring even against staple exercises like the bench press, especially for beginners. (2) There is a lot of engagement from the pecs, deltoids, and triceps, as all three muscle groups work synergistically to move the body in space. 

Total Body Coordination & Stability

If you’re new to exercise, you may find yourself having trouble stabilizing your body under stress. The push-up is especially good at developing body coordination as it reinforces a rigid torso while the limbs move in a controlled manner.

Strength Development

While not as effective as a bench press or weighted dip, the push-up can still develop upper body strength in beginner and intermediate athletes. Pure bodyweight push-ups will be plenty challenging for beginners, while advanced lifters will eventually need to add weight.

Convenience

If you don’t have access to a barbell or some dumbbells, the push-up is second to none for building strong pecs. Since this exercise requires no equipment and takes up limited space, it can be performed anywhere. This makes the push-up tremendously useful if you’re trying to stay in shape while traveling or are strapped for time.

Muscles Worked by the Push-Up 

No exercise is a catch-all for muscle growth, but the push-up comes pretty close from a movement perspective. A well-designed training plan incorporates different elements and exercises to keep things challenging, and you can’t go wrong with the push-up if your goal is adding size

Chest

The pectoralis major (pecs) is located on the front of the torso and is responsible for many of the primary motions of the arm, including flexion and adduction. 

Delts

The deltoid (shoulder) muscle comprises three heads: anterior, medial/lateral, and posterior. The push-up primarily works the anterior deltoid responsible for raising the arm in front of the body. 

Triceps

This upper body muscle is located on the back of the arm and is mainly designed to extend or straighten the elbow. Depending on how you perform the push-up, the triceps can be considered the prime mover. 

Core

Colloquially, the “core” refers to the abdominal muscles but actually involves the musculature of the pelvis, lower back, and ribcage. These structures all work synergistically to stabilize the spine while other body segments (the arms) move in space. The push-up affords many of the benefits of the standard plank.

Who Should Do the Push-Up

An exercise as fundamental and versatile as the push-up has a wide variety of applications. Recreational fitness enthusiasts and competitive athletes alike can reap the benefits of the exercise by customizing their technique or loading parameters. 

[Related: How Tempo Training Can Progress Your Workouts]

Beginners

The push-up is an amazing beginner exercise due to its simplicity built on as the trainee becomes more comfortable or wants more of a challenge. The basic push-up is straightforward and perfectly suited for anyone just getting started with an exercise routine. 

Bodybuilders

Most bodybuilding or hypertrophy programs include a litany of different movements to torch the pecs, and some even eschew the push-up altogether. However, an oft-overlooked benefit of the push-up is its application as a “burnout” exercise at the end of a workout. Those looking to pack on as much muscle as possible should consider adding a few sets of high-rep push-ups before they leave the gym to fatigue their chest, shoulders, and triceps fully. 

Olympic Lifters & Strongmen

Strength athletes aren’t generally focused on maximizing the growth of their chest and arms, but they should still make sure to train those muscles to maintain a balanced physique. The push-up is a great plug-and-play auxiliary exercise for strength athletes because it allows them to stimulate muscles they don’t generally hit in their programming without accumulating so much fatigue that it interferes with their primary workout. 

Push-Up Programming Recommendations 

The push-up has a place in just about every exercise routine. That said, figuring out where it can provide value can be challenging. It is always wise to know the “why” of any exercise in a program. 

[Related: Abide By These 5 Rules of Core Training for Stronger Abs]

For General Fitness

If you aren’t training for a powerlifting meet or working towards your first physique competition, it’s best to keep it simple when it comes to push-ups. A few moderate-effort sets two to three times per week is more than enough for keeping the muscles in shape and ready for whatever life throws at you.

Perform consistent repetitions until you feel you’re three to five reps short of failure, and then rest for sixty to ninety seconds. Repeat two to three more times, two to three times per week, to maintain your strength and proficiency in the movement.

For Physique Development

The standard push-up can be quite useful for those looking to build their chest and shoulders. It works particularly well as a “finisher” exercise to cap off an intense resistance training workout. Consider adding one to three “AMRAP” (as many reps as possible) sets twice a week before you leave the gym.

For Strength & Power

If your goal is lifting heavy weights or becoming inhumanly explosive, the best practice for implementing push-ups is exactly the opposite of bodybuilding. For power output, perform a few sets at the start of a workout when the body and mind are fresh and ready to go. Some light-moderate effort sets would also work wonders as a warm-up exercise before a bench session.

Push-Up Variations

Although the standard push-up more than meets the bar when improving strength and building muscle, there are options for changing it up to keep your workouts fresh and fun. 

Plate-Loaded Push-Up

A lack of meaningful progressive overload is one of the big drawbacks of bodyweight training. That said, the push-up is one of the staple movements that can be loaded for increased resistance. Simply placing a standard weight plate on your lower back while setting up is an easy way to ensure that you keep making gains once your body weight becomes too easy. 

Close-Grip Push-Up

The standard posture for regular push-up blasts the pecs, delts, and triceps. Which muscle group takes more of the load can be adjusted by changing hand or arm position. By moving your hands closer to your midline — or even inside shoulder width — you can add stress to the triceps specifically. By shifting the load away from the larger pecs and the smaller muscles of the arm and shoulder, the exercise becomes significantly more challenging. 

Single-Arm Push-Up

Possibly the most advanced version of the movement, the single-arm push-up (SAPU), is a real challenge for even experienced gymgoers. By placing one hand behind your back and centering your contact hand on the floor, the stability and strength demands go through the roof. While not exactly an appropriate tool for gaining muscle, the sheer difficulty of the SAPU makes it a great goal to work towards.

Push-Up Alternatives

The benefits of the push-up are extensive, but the fact remains that bodyweight training isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some people want more of a challenge. Others prefer having a heavy barbell in hand. Luckily, some alternatives check a lot of the same beneficial boxes the push-up provides. 

Close-Grip Bench Press

The close-grip bench press (CGBP) is the go-to alternative for anyone who prefers to do their work with a bar. Similar in most ways to a standard bench press, by adjusting grip inward to be in line with the shoulder in the starting position, you can very closely mimic the movement of a push-up, thus hitting all of the same muscles. The CGBP obviously requires more equipment, but the potential payoff lies in your ability to load the movement and, therefore, easily apply progressive overload

Dips

The calisthenic cousin of the push-up, in terms of movement, is the standard dip exercise. Performed with either your bodyweight or loaded via chains/bands, the dip also tightly mirrors the movement of a push-up while also being a viable calisthenic exercise for anyone without barbells or dumbbells. The trade-off here is that the dip places more stress on the shoulder joint and can be dangerous if not performed with acute attention to technique. 

FAQs

Are push-ups safe for beginners?

Yes. As long as you do it correctly. The push-up is considered a cornerstone exercise for anyone new to an exercise regimen. The straightforward, low-impact technique makes it a safe, low-coordination exercise that targets multiple muscles at once. It is also highly scalable in terms of relative difficulty.

Can I perform push-ups every day?

In theory, yes, if you account for the total workload. An often-overlooked benefit of bodyweight training is its low fatigue factor — lack of high external resistance means the brain and body can handle a high volume of training and recover quickly, even daily.

What muscles do push ups work?

Push ups work a variety of muscles. The prime movers involved in the push up are the pec major, anterior (front) deltoid, and triceps. There are other muscles worked as well that serve as synergists, stabilizers, and antagonists.

How often can I do push ups?

Push ups can be performed relatively regularly as long as you have the energy and capabilities to do so. Since they’re a lower impact bodyweight movement, they’re slightly less taxing on the body as a whole. Program and use them based on your needs and capabilities.

What’s the best way to progress my push-ups?

While calisthenic training can hit the ceiling fairly quickly for experienced athletes, there are still ways to modify movements like the push-up so that they keep returning value. If a standard bodyweight push-up is too easy, adding a small weight plate on your lower back can bump the difficulty.

Alternatively, implementing “clapping” push-ups requires significantly more explosive power to perform successfully. Finally, a single-arm or even handstand push-up takes the exercise to the extreme end of difficulty without requiring external load.

References

  1. Lehman G., Gilas D., Patel U. (2008) An unstable support surface does not increase scapulothoracic stabilizing muscle activity during push up and push up plus exercises. Manual Therapy 13(6), 500-506.
  2. Kikuchi N., Nakazato K. (2017) Low-load bench press and push-up induce similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gain. Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness 15(1), 37-42.